A Steampunk's Guide To Clockworks: From The Cradle Of Civilization To Electromechanical Computers
We mentioned John Locke in the episode on the Scientific Revolution. And Leibniz. They not only worked in the new branches of science, math, and philosophy, but they put many of their theories to use and were engineers.
Computing at the time was mechanical, what we might now think of as clockwork. And clockwork was starting to get some innovative new thinking. As we’ve covered, clockworks go back thousands of years. But with a jump in more and more accurate machining and more science, advances in timekeeping were coming. Locke and Huygens worked on pendulum clocks and then moved to spring driven clocks. Both taught English patents and because they didn’t work that well, neither were granted. But more somethings needed to happen to improve the accuracy of time.
Time was becoming increasingly important. Not only to show up to appointments and computing ever increasing math problems but also for navigation. Going back to the Greeks, we’d been estimating our position on the Earth relative to seconds and degrees. And a rapidly growing maritime power like England at the time needed to use clocks to guide ships. Why?
The world is a sphere. A sphere has 360 degrees which multiplied by 60 minutes is 21,600. The North South circumference is 21603 nautical miles. Actually the world isn’t a perfect sphere so the circumference around the equator is 21,639 nautical miles. Each nautical mile is 6,076 feet. When traveling by sea, trying to do all that math in feet and inches is terribly difficult and so we came up with 180 lines each of latitude, running east-west and longitude running north-south. That’s 60 nautical miles in each line, or 60 minutes. The distance between each naturally goes down as one gets closer to the poles - and goes down a a percentage relative to the distance to those poles. Problem was that the most accurate time to check your position relative to the sun was at noon or to use the Polaris North Star at night.
Much of this went back to the Greeks and further. The Sumerians developed the sexagesimal system, or base 60 and passed it down to the Babylonians in the 3rd millennium BCE and by 2000 BCE gave us the solar year and the sundial. As their empire grew rich with trade and growing cities by 1500 BCE the Egyptians had developed the first water clocks timers, proved by the Karnak water clock, beginning as a controlled amount of water filling up a vessel until it reached marks. Water could be moved - horizontal water wheels were developed as far back as the 4th millennium BCE.
Both the sundial and the water clock became more precise in the ensuing centuries, taking location and the time of the year into account. Due to water reacting differently in various climates we also got the sandglass, now referred to as the hourglass.
The sundial became common in Greece by the sixth century BCE, as did the water clock, which they called the clepsydra. By then it had a float that would tell the time. Plato even supposedly added a bowl full of balls to his inflow water clock that would dump them on a copper plate as an alarm during the day for his academy.
We still use the base 60 scale and the rough solar years from even more ancient times. But every time sixty seconds ticks by something needs to happen to increment a minute and every 60 minutes needs to increment an hour. From the days of Thales in the 600s BCE and earlier, the Greeks had been documenting and studying math and engineering. And inventing. All that gathered knowledge was starting to come together.
Ctesibius was potentially the first to head the Library of Alexandria and while there, developed the siphon, force pumps, compressed air, and so the earliest uses of pneumatics. He is accredited for adding a scale and float thus mechanics. And expanding the use to include water powered gearing that produced sound and moved dials with wheels.
The Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium in the 240s BCE, if not further back, added an escapement to the water clock. He started by simply applying a counterweight to the end of a spoon and as the spoon filled, a ball was released. He also described a robotic maid who, when Greeks put a cup in her hand, poured wine.
Archimedes added the idea that objects displaced water based on their volume but also mathematical understanding of the six simple machines. He then gets credited for being the first to add a gear to a water clock. We now have gears and escapements. Here’s a thought, given their lifetimes overlapping, Philo, Archimedes, and Ctesibius could have all been studying together at the library. Archimedes certainly continued on with earlier designs, adding a chime to the early water clocks. And Archimedes is often credited for providing us with the first transmission gears.
The Antikythera device proves the greeks also made use of complex gearing. Transferring energy in more complex gearing patterns. It is hand cranked but shows mathematical and gearing mastery by choosing a day and year and seeing when the next eclipse and olympiad would be. And the Greeks were all to happy to use gearing for other devices, such as an odometer in the first century BCE and to build the Tower of the Winds, an entire building that acted as a detailed and geared water clock as well as perhaps a model of the universe.
And we got the astrolabe at the same time, from Apollonius or Hipparchus. But a new empire had risen. The astrolabe was a circle of metal with an arm called an alidade that users sighted to the altitude of a star and based on that, you could get your location. The gearing was simple but the math required to get accurate readings was not. These were analog computers of a sort - you gave them an input and they produced an output. At this point they were mostly used by astronomers and continued to be used by Western philosophers at least until the Byzantines.
The sundial, water clocks, and many of these engineering concepts were brought to Rome as the empire expanded, many from Greece. The Roman Vitruvius is credited with taking that horizontal water wheel and flipping it vertical in 14 CE. Around the same time, Augustus Caesar built a large sundial in Campus Martius. The Romans also added a rod to cranks giving us sawmills in the third century. The larger the empire the more time people spent in appointments and the more important time became - but also the more people could notice the impact that automata had. Granted much of it was large, like a windmill at the time, but most technology starts huge and miniaturizes as more precision tooling becomes available to increasingly talented craftspeople and engineers.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was an architect who wrote 10 books in the 20s BCE about technology. His works link aqueducts to water-driven machinations that could raise water from mines, driven by a man walking on a wheel above ground like a hamster does today but with more meaning. They took works from the Hellenistic era and put them in use on an industrial scale. This allowed them to terraform lands and spring new cities into existence. Sawing timber with mills using water to move saws allowed them to build faster. And grinding flour with mills allowed them to feed more people.
Heron of Alexandria would study and invent at the Library of Alexandria, amongst scrolls piled to the ceilings in halls with philosophers and mechanics. The inheritor of so much learning, he developed vending machines, statues that moved, and even a steam engine. If the Greeks and early Roman conquered of Alexandria could figure out how a thing work, they could automate it.
Many automations were to prove the divine. Such as water powered counterweights to open doors when priests summoned a god, and blew compressed air through trumpets. He also used a wind mill to power an organ and a programmable cart using a weight to turn a drive axle. He also developed an omen machine, with ropes and pulleys on a gear that caused a bird to sing, the song driven by a sim…